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Various Artists

Russendisko: Hits

(Trikont; US: 26 Aug 2003; UK: 19 May 2003)

When most people hear the phrase “dance club,” a fairly narrow range of pictures comes to mind: generally either techno-fueled raves or the stereotypical dance club, where fashionably dressed people try to hook up while dancing to a mix of hip-hop, house music, top 40 pop/R&B, etc. Of course people dance to other types of music, but not usually in the club setting. As a compilation of popular songs from a bimonthly series of dance events at a Berlin nightclub, Russendisko seems like a likely place to find these sounds. But there’s little that’s typical about Ruseendisko, the album or the events.

Organizers Vladimir Kaminer and Yuriy Gurzhy, both Russians who moved to Berlin, planned the Russendisko nights as parties to showcase Russian music that went against the clichés and stereotypes about Russia held by many of the people they encountered in Berlin. This music was rambunctious and completely off-kilter: wild mixes of ska, rock, traditional Russian folk music, punk, and more. Yet it was also easy to dance to. Right from the start of Russendisko, you can feel what great parties these events must have been. This is music that makes you want to get up and do whatever you feel like; it has a free, anything-goes vibe that screams “party!” no matter what language you speak.

Since the Russendisko events themselves are no more, this collection is commemorative, not an invitation to a party. But more importantly, it showcases Russian music that your average person outside of that part of the world isn’t likely to hear otherwise. And it does so in much the same way as the Russendisko events themselves, since it was compiled by the two DJs, Gurzhy and Kaminer, and even includes their notes about each band.

Russendisko is thus an introduction to modern Russian party music that retains the air of a party throughout. It’s put together by people who know how to move a crowd, who know what song should lead to what. It’s thus both a primer and a party-in-a-box.

Right from the opening drum beat and bass line of “The Little Chinese Bells” by Nogu Svelo!, a band described in the liner notes as “one of the funniest bands in Russia’s capital”, it’s clear that no language barrier can hide the sheer glee behind these songs. Yet many of them also have a twisted side, like slightly devilish amalgamations of the new and old. Witness the punk-rock snarl in the voice of Leningrad’s singer on “WWW”, even as he’s backed by bright horns and enough energy to get a dead elephant dancing.

Rapid, positive-sounding horn sections and jumpy rhythms are all over Russendisko, the mark of the apparent ska influence on so many of these bands, from the obviously named St. Petersburg Ska-Jazz Review (whose snazzy “Trip Back to Childhood” closes out the disc) to groups like Spitfire and Markscheider Kunst. As Gurzhy and Kaminer write about Spitfire, “When the ska pioneers recorded their first tracks in the sixties in Jamaica, I am sure they never imagined that roughly thirty years later, in the back of beyond, on the other side of the world—in cold Russia—thousands of ska bands would form up”.

Much of the music on Russendisko seems based on that same notion of surprising the people of the past, of doing something new with old styles of music. While many of the groups draw stylistically from traditional music of the past, La Minor’s “A Girl in a Cotton Dress” and VV’s “You Took the Piss Out of Me” are both modernized covers of songs from the past, the latter adding an electronic beat to help rejuvenate a song that sounds like it could have been danced to by the band’s grandparents. Those twin traits—universality and vitality—are part of what makes Russendisko so enjoyable. It’s music you can dance your pain away to, and it sounds like music your ancestors could have done the same to, no matter where they lived or what language they spoke.

Dave Heaton has been writing about music on a regular basis since 1993, first for unofficial college-town newspapers and DIY fanzines and now mostly on the Internet. In 2000, the same year he started writing for PopMatters, he founded the online arts magazine, still around but often in flux. He writes music reviews for the print magazine The Big Takeover. He is a music obsessive through and through. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

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